Figuring out an opponent’s physical, mental and emotional strengths and weaknesses is the first task that any tennis player should look to accomplish at the beginning of a match.
© Andrew Ong
By Craig O’Shannessy
When you walk onto a tennis court to play a match, you are the second most important person on the court.
Figuring out an opponent’s physical, mental and emotional strengths and weaknesses is the first task that any tennis player should look to accomplish at the beginning of a match. And almost all the critical information you need is presented during the warm-up and the first two service games. This is where you can gain your edge.
The warm-up is not about warming up. This is where you begin to dissect and probe your opponent and gather intelligence. We always hear top pro players saying that matches are about them and their patterns, and that it doesn’t matter what their opponents do. This is an unfortunate and, to be frank, unintelligent view. Ignoring the other side of the net is a recipe for disaster.
Even if you haven’t played a particular opponent before, you have plenty of time to learn about his or hergame during the warm-up. You’ve almost certainly played someone similar, so you can draw on that knowledge. Here’s how to figure out the rest:
• How solid are your opponent’s ground-stroke fundamentals as you rally from the baseline? How much power and spin do they put on the ball, and how deep do they hit it? How many shots in a row do they make before hitting a loose shot or making an error?
• Analyze grips, footwork, contact point and even racquet-head speed for instant feedback on what an opponent likes to do, and more important, doesn’t like to do.
• Where does your opponent stand in relation to the baseline? Well behind the baseline with long looping swings means they prefer longer points and high-bouncing balls. That style of player wants a higher rally ball, so you hit lower. They want a lot of spin, so you give less. They want to play deep, so you play closer to the baseline. They want to hit runaround forehands in the ad court, so you attack their forehand wide in the deuce court.
• Where does your opponent hit his or her first couple of serves? There’s a good chance they’re mindlessly warming up to a favorite spot—important information for your first return game.
The first two games of the match give each player the opportunity to serve and typically unveil their favorite patterns. But you’re already a step ahead, because you saw it all unfold in the warm-up. So, is it more important to hit the ball where you want to hit it or where your opponent does not want it? Sometimes those two places coincide and you’ll probably have a good day at the office. But more often than not, you’ll need to modify your favorite patterns to make sure your opponent is as uncomfortable as possible during and even between points.
Getting the first break of serve is such an advantage in tennis because it invariably activates two additional opponents for the person standing on the other side of the net: nerves and the scoreboard. The first break of serve often hurts your opponent mentally and emotionally, and they can’t play as freely as desired.
Once the warm-up is over, you will have analyzed every part of your opponent's game, including strokes, grips, footwork, movement, shot selection, shot tolerance and even how long he or she feels comfortable between rallies. Then it’s time for chaos.
Craig O’Shannessy is the founder of Brain Game, a tennis analysis company that uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover patterns behind the game.